Places: Benito Cereno

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1855, serial; collected in The Piazza Tales, 1856

Type of work: Novella

Type of plot: Adventure

Time of work: 1799

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Chile

*Chile. Benito CerenoSouth American country off whose coast the American whaling ship Bachelor’s Rest encounters the Spanish slave ship San Dominick, whose slaves have mutinied and taken control, in the harbor of a small island. By setting his story in the southernmost extreme of the known world, Herman Melville dramatizes the racial tensions inherent in the southern United States during the same period. In an attempt to gain the confidence of Captain Amasa Delano of the Bachelor’s Rest, the rebel slaves pretend still to be prisoners and slaves.

Babo, the ostensibly devoted slave of the San Dominick’s captain appears to behave as a quintessential “Uncle Tom,” doing everything he can to meet his master’s needs. The narrator’s description of the slaves is of “natural valets and hairdressers” whose docility arises from the contentment of their limited minds. This is the same view of black slaves depicted in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was published a few years before Melville’s story. However, in Benito Cereno Melville powerfully depicts this view of slaves as a fantasy, with the reality the oppressive violence and savagery of Babo and his allies, who have killed most of the Spanish crew.

In Melville’s view, this is the pragmatic reality of the Southern Hemisphere’s centuries-long involvement with slavery, and the effect upon slaveholders, represented by Benito Cereno, is that of oppressive pessimism, fatalism, and horror. This is Melville’s view of the psychological reality of slaveholders in the American South. Even after being freed from the black rebels, Benito Cereno cannot function or regain equilibrium; when asked what has cast such a psychological shadow upon him, he replies simply, “the negro.” A few months later, he is dead, having followed his leader as tragic victim of the historical burden of slavery. That is the reality of the Southern Hemisphere’s slaves and slaveholders.


*Lima. Capital of Peru where the rebel slaves are tried after the San Dominick is recaptured. Once Babo leaps into Captain Delano’s boat in pursuit of Benito Cereno, he is captured and the revolting slaves are defeated by the crew of Delano’s ship. The captured rebels are then taken to Peru for trial and, in the case of Babo, executed. Significantly located between the hemispheric extremes of southern Chile and Duxbury, Massachusetts, Lima, Peru, acts as a symbolic middle ground of justice and morality between the blind optimism and idealism of New England abolitionism and the horrific degradation of Southern Hemisphere slavery. Here, real spiritual awareness and assistance are available to those victimized by historical evils such as slavery, epitomized by a monk who devotes himself to attempting to help Benito Cereno recover. However, to the conservative and cynical Melville, even such justice, spirituality, and practical morality cannot overcome the destruction wrought by humanity’s historical excesses. Thus, Peru’s symbolic middle-ground justice can kill Babo, but it cannot save the doomed Benito Cereno, who can only follow his leader.

BibliographyBloom, Harold, ed. Herman Melville’s “Billy Budd,” “Benito Cereno,” “Bartleby the Scrivener,” and Other Tales. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Collects the best in late twentieth century views of Melville’s tale, with emphasis on postmodernist approaches to the interweaving of fiction and history and to the different types of documentation represented in the narrative.Burkholder, Robert E., ed. Critical Essays on Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno.” New York: G. K. Hall, 1992. Contains indispensable essays on Benito Cereno in relation to nineteenth century expansionism, slavery, and other topics.Gross, Seymour, ed. A “Benito Cereno” Handbook. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1965. Still one of the most comprehensive texts for understanding Melville’s short novel. Reprints Melville’s source, a chapter in the travel narrative of the eighteenth century ship captain Amasa Delano, as well as eleven critical articles offering historical points of view and discussions of narrative mode, style, symbolism, and theme.Newman, Lea Bertani Vozar. A Reader’s Guide to the Short Stories of Herman Melville. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986. The section on Benito Cereno is indispensable, with sections on publication history, sources and influences, relationship to Melville’s other works, a summary of criticism, and a comprehensive bibliography of related works.Runden, John P. Melville’s “Benito Cereno”: A Text for Guided Research. Boston: D. C. Heath, 1965. An overview of responses to the story from early reviews to mid-twentieth century interpretations. Includes discussion of Melville’s source in a biography of Charles V. Text of Benito Cereno is reprinted with original pagination.
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